Most people generally lack the know-how when it comes to winning in this game we call life, or they possess the know-how but lack the necessary determination and self-discipline to get to that imaginary number one spot that we all dream of, but never work towards. The lack of fulfilment that failure breeds nourishes our obscene worship of those who seem to excel in pursuing their dreams and living their best lives. This behaviour often blinds us from the fundamental truth that we are all flawed and imprecise entities.
The entertainment industry ruthlessly exploits this pitiful and ever present blind spot that we all possess as people by carefully curating experiences and imagery that introduces artificial constructs of beauty and success into our minds. Brands are built around this simple concept and we all fall for on some level or another. Wu-Tang Clan: Of Mics and Men, a four-part documentary about the legendary Wu-Tang Clan, is an exemplary tale of how a multinational brand can be built by a bunch of raggedy ghetto boys with very little, except for a mic and a dream.
“…the Wu-Tang Clan is an extremely flawed thing that is not worthy of honour that comes with being addressed as legendary.”
One normally chooses ignorance when it comes to the personal lives of their favourite musicians because it is often uglier and realer than the stench of sewerage that consistently flows through the streets of Winnie Mandela Zone 4. Once you know, you cannot not know that the Wu-Tang Clan is an extremely flawed thing that is not worthy of honour that comes with being addressed as legendary.
The above opinion does not nullify the fact that a group of impoverished young black men from the grimy streets of New York’s ghettos banded together to build one of the biggest cultural brands of all time. Impressively they did this without embracing the perverting gloss of ostentation which is often essential when one to seeks be prosperous in the entertainment industry. Them ghetto niggas made some of the grimmest joints ever heard on either side of the equator, while selling over 30 million albums between the period of 1993 and 1998. The level of brand recognition that the iron wings logo achieved is easily comparable to that of any global business one can think of. Whether it be Apple, Coca-Cola, Nike, Red Bull or any other symbol of the Caucasians international hegemonic domination of economics, society and culture. Personally, as a House and a kwaito loving pre-pubescent child in mid-nineties South Africa, the iron-wings represented everything that was Hip-Hop in my mind.
Timberlands, baggy-jeans, an added bounce to your walk and a propensity to call every Hip-Hop head “My nigga!” Little did I know that I would soon become a fanatical Hip-hop lover, who refused to acknowledge or listen to any other genre of music that was not about these bars. Retrospectively I think the iron wings were the spark that ignited my chronic interest in in Hip-Hop. All this happened in the underdeveloped dusty streets of Tembisa. Which is a testament to the fact that Wu-Tang clan ain’t nothing to fuck with.
As a long time hip-hop head I have grown to realise that when it comes to the clan, a lot of people were (and still are) faking the funk, myself included. Shamefully I have only come to learn the names of all the clan members through watching Wu-Tang Clan: Of Mics and Men. I only knew and recognized GZA, RZA, Method man, Ghostface Killah and Old dirty bastard. Them other mother fuckers just didn’t command my attention with the weak ass calibre of their work. Beyond their big hit songs, Wu-tang’s music is so steeped in localised urban colloquialisms and experimental Hip-Hop beats that most heads don’t truly fuck with their music the way they claim they do.
Like any global brand, Wu-tang’s core offering is not universally loved but they looked cool as fuck and that’s what most people are after. The cool. Their aesthetics represented a ghetto brotherhood of the hardest and weirdest motherfuckers alive. Urban black youth was proud of the fact that people who looked and behaved like them were represented in mainstream media. Suburban white youth’s curiosity was aroused by the clan’s antics and in their minds Wu-tang represented how the other side lived. Additionally they could piss of their conservative Yankee parents by putting C.R.E.A.M on full blast as they refused to clean their bedrooms, the struggle of any immature white teenager (I think).
My disappointment with the clan stems from how they ran their business as friends and as a family. First of all, do not get into business with family or friends! I repeat, do not go into business with family or friends! One risks irreparably damaging a valued personal relationship and it is difficult to hold people you care about accountable when they are incompetent or insubordinate.
Secondly, RZA’s selection criteria when it came to picking clan members was unsatisfactory to say the least. Old Dirty Bastard is a prime example of this, he was a musical genius with serious impulse control issues. He was one of the first hip-hop artist to sing on hip-hop joints, ululating randomly as the joint went along while sounding gutter as fuck. He was a one man reality show. Keeping fans of the clan glued to their radios and television screens waiting to hear what shit the ODB got up to while they were busy exemplifying mediocracy through their shitty lives.
The dude would arrive late for shows, get wasted while performing, go on wild rants about whatever came to his mind, dissing whoever had the nerve to call him in to order while he was embarrassing the entire clan. Instead of cleaning up to fit in with them Hollywood types, ODB put his poverty on full display because he intuitively knew that white America would be enamoured by the whole spectacle because that’s how they wanted to see black people. As crass and something to be laughed at.
One could argue that Mohammed Ali employed the same tactic to increase his appeal as a public figure when he was coming up as a heavyweight boxer. With all that said, high levels of charisma and creativity are not the only characteristics that a professional artists should possess. Like in any other profession an artists must be disciplined, hardworking and pragmatic. Old Dirty Bastard was none of the above. RZA could not make him toe the line because he was a close cousin and that limited how ruthlessly he could deal with him as a professional.
On the flip side, some of the other clan members lacked the necessary level of talent to be professional recording artist. Masta killa, U-god and Inspectah Deck were subpar talent in my not so humble opinion. They were dead weight who added very little value to the clan’s brand. In the specific case of Ghostface killah he did more harm than good with his bad temperament.
During a HOT97 Summer Jam in 1997. He hyped the crowd into chanting “fuck HOT97”. He was disgruntled with the radio station because at the time HOT97 did not pay artist to perform at their events. They subliminally threatened artists with the possibility of never playing their music on their radio station, which is what they. This negatively affected the reach of their brand because HOT97 was the biggest hip-hop radio station in the mecca of Hip-Hop, New York. Shortly after this incident the clan cancelled tours because certain members could not get along. Simply put, there were too many egos at play and RZA could not keep them in check because he had personal ties with each Wu member.
Throughout the doccie it is clear as daylight that every member of the clan is unhappy with how RZA ran Wu-Tang Clan. Annoyingly nobody ever explicitly expresses this sentiment which makes the whole thing feel inauthentic to me. One suspects that this is because RZA was the one who got the financial backing to shoot the documentary. Thus nobody wanted to bite the hand that feeds them.
Which is why the Wu-Tang clan could not last as a brand. The image they tried to project in public was not an accurate reflection of how their internal processes actually ran as an organisation. That is the only way a brand can remain sustainable in the long term. That requires a logically consistent approach when one seeks to build a successful business and personal feelings are often disruptive to such an approach. Which does not change the fact the Wu-Tang clan ain’t nothing to fuck with.